A single topical application of 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) to mouse skin decreased 125I-labeled epidermal growth factor (EGF) binding in epidermal membrane preparations within 1 h while 1,8-dihydroxy-3-methyl-9-anthrone (chrysarobin) gradually reduced binding with maximum inhibition at 15 h. Subsequently, 125I-EGF binding increased to approximately 200% of control in epidermal membrane preparations from both TPA- and chrysarobin-treated mice. A single application of TPA but not chrysarobin resulted in a rapid translocation of protein kinase C (PKC) to the membrane; however, treatment with both promoters ultimately led to a time-dependent loss of PKC activity in both membrane and cytosol fractions. The initial inhibition of 125I-EGF binding was sustained for at least 24 h after single and multiple treatments with both promoting agents. Acid washing restored EGF binding to control levels in membrane preparations obtained 24 h after a single application, whereas acid washing of membrane preparations obtained 24 h after a second application of TPA or chrysarobin increased binding (2.5-fold and 1.5-fold that of the control, respectively). The presence of increased amounts of ligands for the EGF receptor in tumor promoter-treated epidermis was initially confirmed in 125I-EGF binding competition experiments using NRK-49F cells. A single topical application of TPA or chrysarobin induced elevated levels of transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha) mRNA at 6 h or 15-24 h, respectively. Elevated levels of a TGF-alpha precursor (21 kDa) were subsequently observed in cytosol and membrane preparations after single and multiple applications of TPA or chrysarobin. These results suggest that repeated topical application of tumor promoters may lead to sustained loss of a negative-feedback mechanism involving phosphorylation at Thr-654 of the EGF receptor by PKC. The concomitant elevation of ligands, such as TGF-alpha, may provide a mechanism for sustained cell proliferation essential for skin tumor promotion.